In a society that continually asks men not to walk away, Kristian Orozco asks if we are adding insult to a tragedy.
The tragic death of Trayvon Martin and the George Zimmerman trial have come to represent different things to many people—from yet another instance of social injustice, lingering racial profiling, prejudice and the plight of African-American boys to controversial state laws, gun control, a shocking verdict, and much more that is divisive. I would say this tragedy is also very much about the message we send to boys about who they should be and how they should act.
Two days after the historic trial ended in a verdict of not guilty, I saw the interview conducted by CNN’s Anderson Cooper with Juror B37, a member of the six-person jury. At one point during the interview, when Cooper asked whether she believed Trayvon Martin played a role in his own death, the juror responded,
“Oh, I believe he played a huge role in his death. He could have, he could have…when George confronted him, he could have walked away and gone home. He didn’t have to do whatever he did and come back and be in a fight.”
He could have walked away. This phrase, delivered in a rather matter-of-fact way, caught my attention. And as it turns out, it was not only Juror B37 who thought this was a plausible and reasonable option under the circumstances—other jury members seemed to think so as well. Since then, I’ve run across articles and commentaries that reflect this same belief.
It’s hard for me to imagine how a 17-year-old boy makes the decision to walk away while embroiled in a highly volatile situation while it rains in the dark of night probably feeling that not only his safety and well-being are under attack but also his dignity, his emerging manhood and sense of self. [For the sake of argument, I'll set aside considerations of race and focus strictly on gender.]
From an early age, we teach our sons to fight back. The culture swirling around boys—the one created and promoted by parents, older siblings, family members, peers, movies, music, celebrities, sports, athletes, popular culture, video games, the military, community leaders, politicians, you name it!—says boys (and men) have only one option when confronted by a threat: to stand up and fight.
The relentless message screams loud and clear, “Don’t back down! Fight back! Stop being a wimp!” (I can still hear it ringing in my ears.) And so, the boy who walks away or backs down becomes an outcast. He is shamed. He is looked down upon with pity. He is called a fag. He might even be an embarrassment to his own father for not being man enough to stand his ground.
We applaud the underdog when he musters the courage to fight back. We idolize the good guy with a gun. We even glamorize vigilante culture. (Ironically, historian Andrew C. Isenberg reveals in his new book Wyatt Earp: A Vigilante Life that the legend we have come to know, imitate and admire so much—one that has proved to be so influential and deeply ingrained in the public conscience—is largely a piece of fiction created by Earp himself.)
Where are the examples of men proudly walking away? When has vulnerability been made acceptable as a manly choice? Who actively models that choice as exemplary? And who is telling our sons there can be honor in backing down without needing to feel cowardly? If there are such instances—and I’m not talking about the generic advice a law enforcement officer might give to the public in sound bites—they surely go unnoticed.
Along with the pervasive issues of racial inequality, social injustice and controversial legislation, our society also needs to reexamine what we are teaching our sons about who they should be and how they should act. And I don’t exclude myself from this task since I’ve been guilty of transmitting this message to my sons. (Yes, the messaging to men is so pervasive that even those of us who study boy and man issues can readily fall into the trap unless we monitor ourselves closely.)
I’d like to think we can prevent future heartbreak, conflicts and tragedies if boys are taught early in life to embrace a different version of manhood. This version would say that walking away—even when a man is justified in standing his ground—is a valid option. When needed, it’s not only something a man can do without feeling shame but could even be deemed admirable under certain circumstances.
Only after our society has altered our message to boys that we could rightfully expect them to make the sensible decision to walk away while still feeling their emerging identity as a man remains intact regardless of what the critics say, including the self-critic. For the time being, I believe it’s unfair to expect a boy—even an older teenager—to do what a male adult is surely incapable of doing if he finds himself in a similar situation.
The whole truth of what happened the night of Trayvon Martin’s death may never be known. (I strongly believe there are always two sides to every story, and we only got to hear one.) Was he really the victim who turned into the aggressor? (That’s what Juror B37 said.) Did he realize he was in a volatile situation from which he needed to extricate himself? Did he consider walking away? Did he feel he had to prove his manhood to his friend on the telephone? Did he even have the option to walk away? Only Trayvon Martin could answer that, but he’s no longer with us.
From what I have read, it seems George Zimmerman did have the option to walk away. He did not have to get out of his car and make choices that created that fatal situation even if justified under the provisions of the Stand Your Ground law. But perhaps Zimmerman is just as big a victim as the boys and men who buy into the outdated myth of manhood, one in which stepping away or backing down are not an option.
To those of us who are still contemplating what Trayvon Martin should have done, I say: Let him now rest in peace. Do not judge him for whatever choices he made that night. And most of all, do not hold him accountable if, in the moment, he felt the need to live up to the boy code that our society has created and from which our sons are struggling to extricate themselves in order to be who they truly are. Continuing to do these things is simply adding insult to tragedy.
photo: josephers / flickr